African Independent Churches and Apartheid


                Africa has spent ages wrestling with and contextualizing scripture.  It has been aware of the liberating spirit of the Holy Spirit for centuries.  This spirit was in dire need in South Africa during apartheid.  There was a vast amount of resistance to apartheid that came from various Christian communities.  Two questions I will answer in this paper in regards to this: ‘What was the nature of African Initiated Church’s response to apartheid?’ and, ‘How did mainline and AICs interact in the struggle against apartheid?’  My research has shown AICs stood somewhere between acquiescence and activism, something like a casual resistance to apartheid.  Also, there is little evidence that AICs and mainline churches worked together during this time of horror.  For context, we will start with shaping the landscape of apartheid and exploring AICs. 

Context of Apartheid

            The history of South Africa goes back thousands of years, but we will start in 1910.  This was the year the Union of South Africa was created as a self-governing dominion with in British Empire.  Coming out of a racist society that only ended slavery under a century ago and had a system of indentured servitude that was quite oppressive, all non-whites were severely limited in their civil rights.[1]  In the following decades, the government implemented clear and obvious laws of discrimination.  These discriminatory principles were even reflected in South Africa’s Constitution when it was completed in 1961.[2]  The discrimination was seen in housing (where groups of people were relocated in mass), education, economic, social, and sexual spheres. 

These segregationist sentiments and policies culminated in 1948 when the Nation Party came to power on the platform of apartheid.[3]  The laws dictated where people could live, work, receive education, hangout, even who they could have sexual relations with. By the 1970s, black education received a tenth of the funding that white education received.[4]  The world watched on for many years, but eventually began to apply political and economic pressure on South Africa.  Former South African president F.W. de Klerk relented under the pressure and legalized the African National Congress (ANC), Pan-African Congress (PAC), and released ANC leader Nelson Mandela in 1990.  Apartheid laws were repealed in 1991, and by 1994 it was entirely ended in a democratic election that resulted with Nelson Mandela as the president.[5]

AICs’ Connections to Africa’s Christian Past

Christianity has a deep history in Africa.  Definitions of Christology and Trinity were heavily shaped by concepts found in Africa by Tertullian, Athanasius, Augustine, Cyril, and Cyprian.[6]  Monasticism itself was birthed in Africa, in the Egyptian desert.[7] Monasticism was heavily concerned with spirit mediums and made room for other vehicles of revelation besides scripture.  Both of these elements are common to AICs.[8]  Although the beginnings of Christianity started in North Africa, we should allow the possibility that these ideas could have made their way down the Nile to southern regions of Africa, before Christian missionaries.  In fact, many AIC leaders were inspired by biblical references to Africa in Psalm 68:31.[9]  It is likely, though that most South Africans were introduced to Christianity by missionaries.  Missionaries as the “experts” on Christianity had a sense of ownership over Christianity.  As owners, they determined the rules for Christianity.  African insistence to contextualize Christianity to African culture and customs against European approval resulted in what are now AICs.

What Exactly is an AIC?

What is an AIC? AIC can have two main connotations and meanings.  AIC can either stand for African Independent Church or African Initiated Church.  African Independent Churches are churches started by those who broke away from mainline churches and began their own church.[10]  African Independent Church planters broke away from mainline churches for various reasons regarding injustices relating to colonialism, racism, power, control, and need for African expression.[11]  African Initiated Churches are created by African converts who decide to begin their own church, but weren’t a part of a mainline denomination and so aren’t breaking away from any Christian tradition.[12]  These churches tend to be characterized by a synergy of African culture and customs with Christianity, and being led by leaders who are seen as prophetic figures.  AICs are inherently a protest movement against Western domination.[13]

It will be helpful to give a brief description of general characteristics in AICs.  I will stay away from describing AICs as syncretistic, as all people combine Christianity with their culture in some sense.  Probably most important to AICs is their emphasis on a conscious experience of the Holy Spirit.[14]  This is seen in their tendency to adhere to more Pentecostal theology and expression, more ecstatic music and worship, speaking in tongues, and visions.  The next hallmark of an AIC is the penchant for healing and exorcisms.  African epistemology and ontology are fundamentally spiritual and religious.  Africans are seemingly unable to explain the world without reference to religion and spirits.[15]  Sprits, good or bad, pervade the African mind and always have a hand in the events in the world.  Lastly, most harp on personal testimony as a mark of devotion.[16]  Talking about how God has acted in one’s life acts as a seal for their conversion.  These characteristics tend to be uncomfortable for many western Christians.  Given the otherness of what African Christians emphasize and the ambivalent position on ancestor veneration and polygamy, many westerners see African Christianity as heretical syncretism with moral laxity.  Ironically, many who leave mainline churches for AICs tend to be more theologically and morally conservative, and are actually looking for an experience of the Spirit as power that they don’t find in mainline churches.[17]

AICs as Acquiescent

There are two main perspectives when considering the activism of AICs during apartheid.  One perspective is that AICs were virtually non-present, not active, acquiescent. Not all AICs are the same, but they do share tendencies.  The Zionist Christian Church is one of the larger AICs and will help provide insight into AICs in general.  When looking at the ZCC, we see that now and during apartheid, the ZCC hardly ever spoke openly on politics, nor did it openly encourage discussion about politics.  ZCC members seldomly engaged with political structures to address their concerns.  Rather, they looked to rituals, healings, and spirituality as a means for coping with life and attempts to rectify socio-economic hardships.[18]  The ZCC has put out statements officially considering itself “above politics”.[19]  This statement can be analyzed many ways, but ostensibly it suggests the ZCC, and AICs in general, don’t directly engage politics.

Schoffeleers suggested that acquiescence is when it’s a church policy to avoid political activism of a critical nature.[20]  During apartheid, AICs were catching criticism for lack of political participation.  The Zionist Church leaders responded by stating it isn’t the role of the Church to engage in politics, but that members are free to do so.[21]  There have been many reasons given for the lack of political activism from AICs.  The most contested is the supposed connection between emphasis on healing and political acquiescence.  The more a religious community engages in healing, they become less politically active.[22]  A core characteristics of AICs is emphasis on healing.  It’s even been shown that when apartheid laws began to tighten, there was a shift of emphasis in AICs to healing which correlated with political acquiescence.[23]

In the 1960s, it was actually just assumed that AICs were instruments of resisting colonialism.[24]  Over the years of apartheid and even up until now, that assumption has done a reversal.  AIC churches didn’t offer up sermons openly condemning apartheid, criticizing specific political leaders, or engaging in protesting.  The suggestion that AICs engaged in symbolized or implicit resistance sometimes allows concepts of resistance so broad that it encroaches on being meaningless.[25]  Acquiescence wasn’t the worst criticism.  The ZCC was even accused of collaborating with the apartheid regime when they invited President P.W. Botha in 1985 to a service for the Easter celebration.[26]  Such a public move motivated deep suspicion of AICs. 

In contrast to the political negligence shown by AICs, mainline churches have much to show for their activism.  They made significant contributions to the overthrow of apartheid.[27]  There is evidence on individual levels, church level, and larger organizational levels.  The African National Congress was commonly led by mainline Christians and the South African Council of Churches was known for their resistance to apartheid.  This organization was comprised of a plethora of denominations and churches that were doing their own work outside the SACC.  They provided education, healthcare systems, and politically participated in the struggle for liberation from apartheid.[28]  Sometimes churches weren’t always supportive of anti-apartheid movements.  At these points, it came down to individuals like Desmond Tutu, Alan Boesak, Manas Buthelezi and others to stand up for justice, even if it ostracization from their churches.[29]  Alan Boesak was the head of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches which gave him a platform to propagate his resistance.[30]  Robert Nolan wrote to show how Jesus was located in a systemic oppressive context and his conflict with the oppressive powers of his days suggests that Christians in South Africa acting in the same character of Christ would come in conflict with apartheid powers.[31]  Mainline churches were engaging in resistance to apartheid on multiple levels through multiple mediums.  Since AICs didn’t perform the same sorts of actions, they were viewed as acquiescent and not involved in resisting apartheid. 

AICs as Resistant

Others however, aren’t convinced by this picture and hold the counter perspective.  Just because AICs didn’t do things the “normal way”, or that we can’t somehow quantify and measure their resistance, doesn’t mean they weren’t actively resisting apartheid.  AIC members voiced that they have been misunderstood and their contribution towards liberation discounted.[32]  Apartheid resistance is too rigidly correlated with organized liberation struggle led by the ANC and United Democratic Front (UDF).[33] Arguments defending this position consist of showing that AICs were politically active, that they engaged in implicit or symbolized activism, and that AICs were kept from the political activism realm altogether.

When it comes to political activism by AICs, some would argue that it is just flat out wrong to say that they weren’t active during the apartheid.  There were two primary modes of their activism.  They more modest than sponsoring large protests or giving scathing critiques from the pulpits, yet they were legitimate forms of activism nonetheless.  The first way is that many AIC leaders were involved in the African custom of imbizos.  These were held by chiefs of the community and was a space for people to come together and talk about the life of the community.[34]  AIC leaders were involved in these meetings throughout the apartheid.  This was where they would comment on the politics of the day and give suggestions on how to fight the apartheid regime.  This approach in local politics is a humbler, but is still political activism.  AICs aren’t a conglomerate of churches with an official idea, document, doctrine, or person they all support.  They are all their own church.  As such, they didn’t strive to articulate a common political stance or to collectively endorse any political party.[35]  AICs are mainly local churches who don’t have the means to act nationally, but are concerned with their local community. 

The other way that AICs were directly involved in political activism was by individual members.  Many AIC church members were themselves involved in political organizations during apartheid.[36] The church itself as an organization may not have joined or put its name with any political organizations or activities, but the people themselves were active.  If the people of a church are involved in political activism, in some ways it makes it strange to claim that the church isn’t involved in political activism.

The most referenced argument that AICs were politically active during apartheid is the appeal to implicit or symbolized resistance.  It is dire to appreciate the inherently religious and spiritual outlook of AICs.  Their communal activities and social institutions are inextricably bound up in religion and the spirit world.[37]  For AIC leaders and members, political struggle was no different from religious participation.[38]  Being religiously active was a form of political activism and resistance.  Not appreciating this may create a critical misunderstanding of what AICs felt like they were doing during apartheid.  If they wanted to fight oppression and inequality, AIC members didn’t look to the ballet box or protest marches for resistance.  Their main tactic was to go to church and pray to God and live holy lives to fight evil. 

The goal of AICs during apartheid was greater than just overcoming inequality and injustice, it was to begin to reshape the culture.  AIC leaders and churches planted early seeds of African national consciousness which lead to the struggles for liberation all across Africa.[39]  ZCC leaders have argued that rather than being isolated from the public during apartheid, they were forming and cultivating a moral and cultural foundation that now their post-apartheid environment desperately needs.[40]  Their goal is more on creating an alternative community of hope and meaning in the midst of despair and evil, rather than on changing specific policies.[41] 

The results of this desire to reshape culture can be seen in the Mpondo Revolt.  The revolt, which spanned roughly from the 1940s to the 1960s was long and most rebellious during the 1950s.[42]  The rural community in Transkei received most of its motivation for revolt from Christian teachings.  There were mainline churches in these areas, but it was the AICs that flourished in these areas and had influence.[43]  Now this isn’t direct political engagement by AIC churches, but it does show how AICs influenced the community to become politically active.

The last defense of AIC political activism isn’t an argument for their activism, but a defense of their inaction.  As we will see, mainline churches and AICs didn’t get along.  This negative relationship may have prevented AICs from being more politically active.  The missionary educated black elites despised AICs.  AICs who were backward-looking and holding onto roots which the educated blacks had left behind.  These educated blacks who were in positions of power and the frontrunners in the struggle against apartheid, excluded AICs from their resistance, excluding AICs from the resistance altogether.[44]

Reflections on AIC Activism and Acquiescence

I find myself having ambivalent opinions on whether AICs were politically active during apartheid.  As I review the data, I am struck by the force of the arguments on both sides.  When the church doesn’t speak from the pulpit, release statements or articles directly against apartheid or the leaders of apartheid, it is hard to say that the church is actively resisting apartheid.  For a church to be politically active, it would imply that the church itself is involved in political action.  The fact that AICs shied away from opportunities to be publicly politically active against apartheid, really makes it looks like AICs were acquiescent.  Not to mention the fact that the ZCC publicly welcomed the president of the apartheid regime to one of their Easter services.  As I’ve shown though, this isn’t the whole story.

The claim to being excluded from activism seems to me to be a poor excuse for not being politically active.  There is something to be said about how AICs could have been excluded from many large public demonstrations of resistance.  However, this shouldn’t have had any effect on AICs sponsoring their own protest, or preaching in services against apartheid.  There may be practical considerations regarding size when doing a protest before putting one on, but to think small AICs couldn’t find someway to engage in a public demonstration against apartheid as a church doesn’t seem to be reasonable. 

On the other hand, I am quite sympathetic to the argument that since AIC members were politically active, so were their churches.  Even if a church isn’t itself as an organization isn’t protesting, if a large percentage or a majority of the congregation is involved in political activism, in a very real sense that church is involved in political activism.  The church is more than a building and more than the official statements they make.  The church is also the people who make it up and the things they do. 

I also am drawn by the argument that implicit or symbolized resistance is still real activism.  Sometimes, you need to combat the environment and systems around a problem to really eradicate the issue.  In many ways, AICs were attempting to change the culture and environment that gave rise to apartheid to dismantle it.  There is so much wisdom in this, but is lacking on its own.  In wanting to destroy the pillars that held up apartheid, it was still needed for AIC leaders to actively condemn apartheid and act against it. 

Acquiescence or resistance don’t seem to be terms that capture the participation of AICs against apartheid.  Could they have done more? Absolutely.  Did they do nothing?  Absolutely not.  Resistance to apartheid wasn’t a priority, but it wasn’t ignored.  It was interacted with casually.  Not directly by the church, but at the leisure of the members.  Not as a goal of the church, but an indirect consequence of loftier hopes.

AIC and Mainline Cooperation

Much as a result from the subtle resistance by AICs and the explicit resistance done by mainline churches, AICs and mainline churches were distinctly not a united front against apartheid.  As we saw earlier, AICs actually felt like mainline churches and or leaders had excluded them from the political activism against apartheid.  AICs had to combat not only colonialism and white domination, but also had to contend with blacks educated by missionaries.[45]  This is in part because of the division created by missionaries amongst the educated blacks in their schooling systems and those blacks outside of it.[46]  The missionary’s hostility towards those who defected from the church to start their own was absorbed by many of the blacks they educated.  Beyond the historical influence for dissent, there are theologically motivated reasons.  Theologically Pentecostal churches are known to denounce many traditional African beliefs and cultural practices.[47]  Christianity was brought and taught through a European lens, and so African culture was seen as non-biblical and needs suppression.  Doctrinally, mainline churches disagreed sharply with AICs and resisted allegiance with them. 

The appearance of syncretism with African religion compared to the “pure Christianity” of the mainline churches, fostered resent for AICs from mainline churches.  I was hoping that the rich history of ecumenism in northern Africa,[48] would have served as a guide for mainline churches and AICs to find a way to work together against apartheid.  Unfortunately, through my research I have found that to be an unfulfilled hope.  The theological and doctrinal differences proved to be too much and stifled any sense of cooperation against apartheid.  Mainline churches couldn’t be seen partnering with heathens who desecrated scripture and Christianity with its flippant syncretism.  AICs couldn’t work with people who viewed them as heathens and were actively opposed to their indigenous traditions and customs. 


Apartheid was a devastating time in world history.  It disgraced the concept of human dignity and was a glimpse into the worst of what a sinful heart can materialize.  It required years of brave and sacrificial individuals and organizations to stand up to this monstrosity to lay it to rest.  Africans were deeply involved in the resistance.  Christianity was a fundamental motivator for many of these Africans.  For those in AICs, it resulted in some form of resistance, but much of it was subtle and by individuals.  AIC churches hardly sponsored any organized resistance or participated in activism as a church.  Mainline churches however, were very politically active in opposing apartheid.  This difference in approach to fighting apartheid and theological difference, resulted in the disunity between AICs and mainline churches in fighting apartheid.  But thank God that he is bigger than disagreement and is sure to continue his redemption of human dignity wherever it gets tore down. 

[1] Plessis, Georgia Alida. 2016. “Apartheid, Religious Pluralism, and the Evolution of the Right to Religious Freedom in South Africa.” Journal of Religious History 40 (2): 237–60. 239.

[2] Plessis, Georgia Alida. “Aparthied, Religious Pluralism.” 240.

[3] Plessis, Georgia Alida. “Aparthied, Religious Pluralism.” 240.

[4] Ibid. 241.

[5] Ibid. 242.

[6] Oden, Thomas C. How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: The African Seedbed of Western Christianity. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2007. 47.

[7] Oden, Thomas C. How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind. 54.

[8] Pobee, John S., and Gabriel Ositelu. African Initiatives in Christianity: the Growth, Gifts, and Diversities of Indigenous African Churches: a Challenge to the Ecumenical Movement. Geneva: WCC Publications, 1998. 16.

[9] Tishken, Joel E, and Andreas Heuser. 2015. “‘Africa Always Brings Us Something New’: A Historiography of African Zionist and Pentecostal Christianities.” Religion 45 (2): 153–73.

[10] Kumalo, Raymond Simangaliso. 2014. “Christianity and Political Engagement in Post-Apartheid South Africa.” Political Theology 15 (3): 220–30. 222.

[11] Makhanya, Mandla. 2017. “Embrace of Christianity and Reaction to Conquest: Transformative Role of South African Independent Churches.” Hervormde Teologiese Studies 73 (3). 2.

[12] Kumalo, Raymond Simangaliso. “Christianity and Political Engagement” 222.

[13] Pobee, John S., and Gabriel Ositelu. African Initiatives in Christianity. 3.

[14] Pobee, John S., and Gabriel Ositelu. African Initiatives in Christianity. 40.

[15] Ibid. 40.

[16] Ibid. 41.

[17] Ibid. 18

[18] Kumalo, Raymond Simangaliso. “Christianity and Political Engagement” 223.

[19] Müller Retief. 2018. “African Indigenous Christianity of Pentecostal Type in South Africa in the Twentieth Century and Beyond : Another Reformation?” Theology Today 75 (3): 318–29. 327.

[20] Schoffeleers, Mattew. 1991. “Ritual Healing and Political Acquiescence: The Case of the Zionist Churches in Southern Africa.” Africa (Edinburgh University Press) 61 (1): 1–25. 3.

[21] Schoffeleers, Mattew. “Ritual Healing and Political Acquiescence.” 9.

[22] Ibid. 10.

[23] Ibid. 6

[24] Schoffeleers, Mattew. “Ritual Healing and Political Acquiescence.” 5.

[25] Ibid. 3.

[26] Bompani, Barbara. 2008. “African Independent Churches in Post-Apartheid South Africa: New Political Interpretations*.” Journal of Southern African Studies 34 (3): 665–77. 667.

[27] Garner, Robert. 2000. “Religion as a Source of Social Change in the New South Africa.” Journal of Religion in Africa 30 (3): 310–43.

[28] Kumalo, Raymond Simangaliso. “Christianity and Political Engagement” 226.

[29] Kumalo, Raymond Simangaliso. “Christianity and Political Engagement.” 226.

[30] McKay, Niall. 2015. “Apartheid Resistance and Biblical Interpretation: From Christian Confession to Materialist Analysis.” Politics and Religion 8 (2): 358–78. 362.

[31] McKay, Niall. 2015. “Apartheid Resistance and Biblical Interpretation.” 364.

[32] Bompani, Barbara. 2008. “African Independent Churches.” 669.

[33] Ibid. 669.

[34] Kumalo, Raymond Simangaliso. “Christianity and Political Engagement” 226.

[35] Bompani, Barbara. 2008. “African Independent Churches.” 671.

[36] Ibid. 669

[37] Pobee, John S., and Gabriel Ositelu. African Initiatives in Christianity. 2.

[38] Bompani, Barbara. 2008. “African Independent Churches.” 666.

[39] Makhanya, Mandla. 2017. “Embrace of Christianity and Reaction to Conquest.” 1.

[40] Bompani, Barbara. 2008. “African Independent Churches.” 669.

[41] Garner, Robert. 2000. “Religion as a Source of Social Change.” 315

[42] Redding, Sean. 2010. “‘Maybe Freedom Will Come from You’: Christian Prophecies and Rumors in the Development of Rural Resistance in South Africa, 1948-1961.” Journal of Religion in Africa 40 (2): 163–91. 173.

[43] Redding, Sean. “Maybe Freedom Will Come from You.” 179.

[44] Sithole, Nkosinathi. 2010. “Acquiescence or Resistance?: The Role of the AIC in the Struggle against Apartheid.” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 137 (July): 104–19. 119.

[45] Sithole, Nkosinathi. “Acquiescence or Resistance?” 104

[46] Ibid. 110.

[47] Kumalo, Raymond Simangaliso. “Christianity and Political Engagement” 224.

[48] Oden, Thomas C. How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind. 49.

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